A Christian Perspective on Pagan and Secular Belief Systems

How are Christians to view systems of thought that are rooted in pagan or secular beliefs? Are non-Christian belief systems so filled with error that Christians can learn nothing from them? Are they so foreign that they only corrupt Christian truth?

Or is there important revelatory common ground made available to all people that allows non-Christians to discover critical truths about life and the world? Could that discovery of truth mean that Christians can learn from pagan or secular sources?

This controversial question of how Christians should view non-Christian belief systems goes back a long way in Christian history. In the ancient world, the question centered on Christianity’s relationship to Greco-Roman philosophy. Two early and prominent Christian church fathers in the ancient world came up with different answers to this challenging issue. Interestingly, both of these Christian thinkers were noted North African church fathers.

Tertullian’s Antithesis Perspective

Tertullian (c. 160–220) was a Latin, North African church father who was educated in the subjects of law and rhetoric and was an engaging writer. He converted to Christianity in midlife. Unique, bold, and temperamental, he served as an apologist and polemicist for early Christianity at a time when the faith encountered a hostile Roman culture.

Tertullian’s view of Christianity’s relationship to pagan philosophy reflects a clear antithesis (a clash of opposition). He strongly believed that Christians had no need or use for pagan philosophy. In his mind, pagan philosophy contaminated and corrupted the one true Christian faith.

Here’s Tertullian at his polemical best:

What indeed has Athens to do with Jerusalem? What concord is there between the Academy and the Church? What between heretics and Christians? Our instruction comes from the porch of Solomon who himself taught that the Lord should be sought in simplicity of heart. Away with all attempts to produce a mottled Christianity of Stoic, Platonic and dialectic composition! We want no curious disputation after possessing Christ Jesus, no inquisition after enjoying the Gospel! With our faith, we desire no further belief. For this is our palmary faith, that there is nothing which we ought to believe besides.1

Augustine’s Critical Appropriation Perspective

Augustine (354–430) was a prolific author, a robust theologian, an insightful philosopher, and a tenacious apologist for the truth of historic Christianity. He is a universal Christian voice within Western Christendom and remains as important to Protestants as he is to Catholics.

Augustine recognized that pagan philosophy certainly involved false beliefs about God, the world, and the human condition. He saw a clash of worldview between Christian theology and pagan philosophy. But he also recognized that pagans were made in the image of God and were the recipients of general revelation and common grace. Thus, pagans got certain things wrong but also some things right about reality and moral goodness (Acts 17:22–30).

Here’s Augustine commenting on the Platonist philosophers’ nearness and farness to truth:

Platonist philosophers excel all others in reputation and authority, just because they are nearer to the truth than the rest, even though they are a long way from it.2

For Augustine, philosophy is a handmaid (servant) to theology. But pagan philosophy should not be accepted or rejected in totality. Rather, pagan philosophy needs to go through a critical appropriation. In Augustine’s thinking, the Platonists possess the divine image, general revelation, and common grace; thus their keen philosophical insights put them near or “nearer to the truth.” But original sin distorts truth and without special revelation (Christ, the gospel) they are still “a long way from it.”

Augustine’s thinking on this topic became the consensus position. For example, the great Catholic philosopher Thomas Aquinas (1225–1274) followed Augustine’s critical appropriation model when forming his Christian-Aristotelian synthesis. Here’s Christian theologian Gerald McDermott’s description of Aquinas’s approach to evaluating the philosophy of Aristotle:

Thomas accepted from Aristotle what he thought was in accord with Christian doctrine, rejected what he thought was not (and explained why), and used some of Aristotle’s categories to help teach Christian faith.3

What We Can Learn

Though they got some important ideas wrong, the great Greek philosophers still had deep insights about such realities as truth, goodness, and beauty. But how do the ancient pagan religions compare to today’s world religions? Well, the ancient pagan religions were a lot like contemporary non-Christian world religions. They got a lot wrong (false gods and false beliefs about humanity) but they also got some critical issues right (for example, a sense of the divine and important aspects about morality).

I think Augustine’s model is superior to that of Tertullian when it comes to explaining how Christianity can relate to other belief systems. As Christians, we grant that people in other religious systems get important things right by a revelation of truth that is given to all (Psalm 19). Yet we must also appreciate the inevitable errors and distortions due to idolatry (false gods and immoral practices) that are inherent in non-Christian religions (Romans 1:18–28). This common ground affords Christians the opportunity to build responsible bridges that can hopefully lead to sharing the gospel message with people who don’t know Christ.

Reflections: Your Turn 

Is it biblical to think non-Christian religions will always combine some basic truths mixed with deeply false ideas about God? If so, why?

Resources

Endnotes

  1. As cited in Alister E. McGrath, ed., The Christian Theology Reader,2nd. ed.(Oxford, Blackwell, 2001), 7-8.
  2. St. Augustine, The City of God, Henry Bettenson trans. (New York: Penguin, 1984), Book 11, section 5, 434.
  3. Gerald R. McDermott, The Great Theologians: A Brief Guide (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 2010), 65.

  One thought on “A Christian Perspective on Pagan and Secular Belief Systems

  1. June 4, 2019 at 6:22 am

    Augustine’s reflections in De Doctrina are better and clearer in the style of critical appropriation. “Truth, wherever it is found, belongs to God” (II.18.28). Anyone familiar with the Catholic practice of acculturation and pluralism will recognize the deep influence of Augustine over this outlook of sanctifying whatever, even how little, truth is (or can be) found in other cultures and belief systems.

    Tertullian, however, reminds an important antidote to over romanticization. Something that is deeply pervasive today.

    • June 4, 2019 at 9:45 am

      Appreciate your comments, Hesiod.

      Thanks for the Augustine quote.

      Ken Samples

    • Codi Dillon Spodnik
      June 4, 2019 at 11:16 am

      I think this is a very important distinction between truth, ideas about truth, and practice. Even Augustine’s notion accepts what is true out of paganism, recognizes it as true and dismisses the rest. He doesn’t advocate adopting ideas that are not true because they were blended with the truth. He advocates untangling them and recognizing truth and error.

      When we now have the opportunity to examine pagan practices of worship, it is my opinion that too many Christians are comfortable accepting the blending of pagan practices into Christian worship, instead of recognizing that pagan practices are a blend of truth and error. Observing that pagans engage in mystical practices to engage their deity, seeing how they invoke spiritual experiences, etc, Christians can recognize that deity is real, spirits are real, and it is true that humans can access/engage the spirit realm, but….should we? Shall we adopt trance states, bodily gyrations, pagan methods of invocation to access the God above all gods? I submit that no, we should not blend pagan practices with the sacraments that we were given distinctly by Jesus. Recognizing that pagans have some truth in their philosophy gives us a truth to appeal to when we evangelize them, but I believe it is critically important to emphasize that we leave behind all our pagan practices when we come out of those systems come to Christ. The simple Gospel of His identity, His deeds, is something distinct that we accept as our reality and there is no room for us to bring our pagan practices and rituals, any more than there is room for Israel to have brought circumcision or animal sacrifices.

    • June 4, 2019 at 2:29 pm

      Thanks for the reblog.

      Ken Samples

    • June 5, 2019 at 1:32 pm

      Thanks for the link.

      Ken Samples

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